Starting Early -- The John Olerud Hall Of Fame Case

Anyone who reads about baseball on the Internet is likely experiencing Hall of Fame burnout. Before moving on with our baseball lives, I wanted to highlight a player who will be on the Hall ballot for the first time during the next voting cycle, John Olerud. His Met tenure was too brief (1997-1999) and he also played for the Blue Jays, Mariners, Yankees and Red Sox. His case is similar to Keith Hernandez's, in that they were high OBP, great fielding first basemen whose careers were a bit too short. Olerud won't come close to making the Hall but he is no David Segui or Shane Reynolds throwaway type candidate. His case is stronger than most probably think. This is aimed at Hall voters with all different perspectives. The sabermetrically-inclined, the traditionally-inclined, those who heavily weigh character -- all can appreciate and understand this case.

Statistics

Olerud finished his 17-year career with a slash line of .295/.398/.465, 255 home runs and 1230 RBI. What he lacked in home run power he made up for with patience at the plate, in the form of a career 14.4% BB%, and doubles power. His OPS+ was 128, meaning his OPS was 28% better than league average for his career. This beats writer-elected Hall of Fame first basemen Tony Perez and George Sisler. Olerud's performance at the plate is not enough to make a reasonable Hall case. Factoring only hitting, he's basically Tim Salmon (not that there's anything shameful about hitting as well as Salmon did). However, offense is not the only variable for player evaluation.

Defense must also be considered, and Olerud excelled at it. He was famously a part of the "Best Infield Ever" and won three Gold Gloves, while probably deserving a bunch more. Despite a lack of speed, Olerud was nimble at first base and adept at picking throws in the dirt. The perception that he was a standout with the glove is supported by Sean Smith's TotalZone statistic. Including double play runs, Olerud saved 97 runs above average with his glove, 3rd all-time behind Keith Hernandez's 120 and Albert Pujols's 116. He saved more runs than Mark Grace, George Scott and Todd Helton, three other highly regarded defensive first basemen.

The statistic wins above replacement (WAR) combines offense, defense, baserunning, positional adjustment and playing time in an attempt to assign a win value to an individual player. It's useful for comparing players of different eras and different positions. Olerud's career WAR per Baseball Projection is 56.6. This surpasses writer-selected Hall of Fame position players such as:

  • Joe Medwick
  • Lou Boudreau
  • Bill Dickey
  • Mickey Cochrane
  • Luis Aparicio
  • Ralph Kiner
  • Jim Rice

It is also just 0.2 WAR less than recently enshrined Andre Dawson. WAR is not the end-all, be-all measure of a player's performance, but it's a great place to start. Actual voters, like Ken Davidoff and Peter Gammons, cited the stat in their ballot explanation pieces, evidence of its increasing prominence in the game. In my estimation, Olerud had two MVP-type seasons, four All-Star caliber seasons and four more above average seasons. A couple more years of ~4 win production would make his case much stronger but 56.6 WAR is still something to be admired.

Team Impact

Olerud is a winning ballplayer. Some of his accomplishments:

  • Two-time World Series champion, with the 1992 and 1993 Blue Jays.
  • Competed in the postseason in eight different seasons, with each of the five teams he played for.
  • Member of the 2001 Seattle Mariners, who won 116 games in the regular season. This is tied for the most ever.
  • In Game 1 of the 1999 NLDS, he homered off Cy Young Winner Randy Johnson to put the Mets up 3-0 in the 3rd inning. This set the tone for the series and the seemingly invincible Johnson would not pitch another inning in 1999 after this game. The Mets won the series in four games.
  • Had almost indentical numbers at home and on the road, demonstrating the unflappability for which he was known.
  • Had a higher OPS w/RISP (.902) and in high leverage situations (.880) than his overall career OPS (.863).

Character

Olerud was a quiet, uncontroversial, team-first kind of player. He was(/is) also a nice guy. I met him at the Mets Clubhouse on Long Island back in 1997, his first season with the Mets. He and Bobby Jones were there signing autographs and meeting fans. I made it there close to the end of the session and there was no line. Upon walking up to the players' table, I took out the ball and about five baseball cards I brought along. The store manager saw this and snickered to my dad that each item would cost $5 to have autographed. Resisting the urge to belligerently retort that he could direct his money grubbing comment towards me, I instead said hello to both players and shook their hands. Olerud signed my ball and asked to look through the cards I brought. One was my prized 1993 Upper Deck card, which was usually displayed side-by-side on my dresser with the Paul Molitor and Roberto Alomar cards from the same set. The trio had finished 1-2-3 in the batting title race that year, three stars on a team full of them (Rickey Henderson, Joe Carter, Al Leiter and a young Carlos Delgado were also present). After thumbing through the cards, Olerud signed all of them with a slight smirk which was visible to the store manager. There was no extra charge per autograph, obviously, and he also answered some questions I had about improving my hitting. The answers escape me now but I'm sure they were gold. It's also worth noting that Jones was equally gracious and demonstrated a curveball grip that I would use to surrender multiple 400+ foot home runs during my high school pitching career. For a twelve year-old who spent his summers watching baseball, playing baseball and memorizing stats on the back of Topps cards, this was a banner day, made even more memorable by a simple gesture from a star athlete. Character shouldn't be the basis of a Hall of Fame induction but is something that should be weighed, especially in borderline cases. Olerud passes that test.

Olerud's Best Infield Ever brethren Robin Ventura had a similar career in terms of value and longevity. Ventura was on this year's ballot and only received 1.3% of the vote. Similar results for Johnny O. are expected, and there's no reason to be upset about that. He's probably a small tick below borderline and if not for the glut of awesome first baseman in the 1990's (Jeff Bagwell, Frank Thomas, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Jim Thome) serious consideration would probably be warranted. A vote for Olerud next year would come mostly from the subjective heart and not the objective brain. If nothing else, his inclusion on the ballot will bring some warranted attention to a player who deserved it but never desired it.

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